TES: How to help children to manage their emotions

14 May 2017

Children are possibly facing greater emotional pressures than ever before - and it is up to us to help them make sense of their feelings, says one psychologist

All feelings are important to us, even the difficult ones; they are part of nature’s natural warning system.

Children are born with an innate ability to adapt and survive in their environment. As a result of this, they are naturally expressive without needing to use words; think of a crying baby being able to let you know they are hungry, tired, thirsty, cold, hot or bored. 

When children are asked to identify their feelings to express what is bothering them, they usually find it fairly easy in a safe environment, using an illustrated chart that shows the six “core” emotions of anger, fear, surprise, disgust, happiness and sadness.

But all children, in every walk of life, will struggle with their feelings from time to time. Modern family life is complex and it could be argued that children have to deal with more emotional pressures than ever before. 

Ignoring or supressing feelings can result in children becoming fearful. Yet parents, carers and teachers sometimes struggle to know how to effectively deal with the emotions that children display.

Making emotions manageable

I have been working in schools, with children and families, for the past 10 years and I have found that one of the best ways to help young people to identify and express their feelings safely is through stories and creativity. 

I’ve written a series of storybooks designed to open up opportunities to discuss emotions with children in a non-judgemental, non-authoritative way.  In The Sad Skeleton, we are introduced to a skeleton who is struggling to understand his feelings of sadness. As readers follow the skeleton’s journey, there are chances to talk about what the character is feeling.

This process helps children to accept that emotions are an important and normal part of life, and it makes everyday feelings seem less scary and more manageable. 

Stories are a great place to start, but teachers can also use the following techniques to help students to explore their emotions:

  1. A technique called “externalisation” is often used to help children talk through problems. Externalising means helping the child to separate the person from the problem, which will make them feel less defensive or blamed. Instead of being defined as a problem, a child can then have a relationship with the externalised problem.
  2. Play can provide opportunities for children to talk about things that they might otherwise find difficult to verbalise. For example, puppets, art or sand trays can help the child to express their feelings.
  3. I call emotions “big feelings”, as I find that this is a phrase that children can easily understand. I then ask the child simple questions to help establish what the feeling might be and why they think it’s happening, giving the child an opportunity to share their story.

Kay Brophy is a psychologist and family practitioner and a member of the British Psychological Society and the Association for Family Therapy

The Sad Skeleton is the first book in the Finding Your Way series, published by Middle Farm Press